J. Henderson (USA)
the teacher of History,
West Forsyth High School,
Cumming, Georgia, the USA,
H. Ogorodnikova (Russia)
the teacher of English,
School 10, Kirov, Russia,
In a time when mankind’s most significant problems are global and can be solved only by cooperation across cultures, intercultural tolerance and communications have become increasingly important. From a practical point of view, these skills enhance efficiency by limiting the occasions for cultural misunderstandings, something important not only for international diplomacy but also for the functioning of multinational corporations. Moreover, the same skills can simply be considered as important human values; empathy and tolerance are desirable human qualities even outside of any practical application they might posses.
Intercultural Competence is the term that has come to embody all the traits necessary to collaborate in a congenial way with people from other cultures. Because of the growing awareness of its importance, it is not surprising that much has been spoken about it lately in the realm of education. If the purpose of education is to prepare students for life then it follows that the most forward-thinking and responsible schools will strive to raise the Intercultural Competence of their students. Anything less would be a disservice to our students who will inherit a world much more integrated than that of their parents.
It is difficult to say which school subject is most suitable for developing students’ Intercultural Competence. Humanities, Languages, and Social Studies all offer opportunities to learn about other cultures in the classroom. But the problem is that Intercultural Competence involves more than just factual knowledge about other cultures. It is primarily a skill, and as such it can be developed only in the course of actual interaction across different cultures.
Currently this problem can be easily solved by various computer technologies that offer a wide choice for organizing intercultural communication between schools. Innovative teachers are increasingly integrating forums, blogs, email and video conferencing into their curriculum and many websites exist for the purpose of bringing together international partners on specific topics. These projects obviously make the process of study more interesting, active and globally oriented. At the same time, one should agree that most of these forms of communicating are short-term, and have limited objectives in terms of students’ interrelations. They are mostly aimed at supporting the studies of a specific content area and often do not involve students in the level of sustained and in-depth interactions necessary to form the skills of Intercultural Competence.
That is why we are sure that only systematic and long-term intercultural communication based on dialogue and interaction among consistent groups of students will yield actual gains in improving student Intercultural Competence. Our experience in designing and implementing such projects bears out this belief.
The aim of the international socially-oriented Russia-US project for the students from Kirov School 10, Russia and West Forsyth High School, USA is to organize students’ intercultural communication in order to develop their Intercultural Competence. We believe the best evidence of success in this endeavor is not only students’ mutual understanding and respect for each other, but a readiness to continue further communications after the school projects have ceased.
The most important thing for a teacher who wants to organize such a project is to find a reliable teacher-partner abroad who is ready for long-distance cooperation. On the one hand, it is not difficult today as there are many Internet sites giving the opportunity for teachers from different countries to "meet” each other. On the other hand, as practice shows, only positive personal relations and mutual understanding between the teachers can make the project really successful. The planning of such projects goes beyond the normal obligations teachers have at the local school level. They require constant communication, commitment, and flexibility. In short, the teachers must possess and model the very characteristics of Intercultural Competence that they strive to form in their students.
Mutually compatible technology is another factor which plays a big role for successful projects. Although there are many services available for video conferencing, each school has its own system of security filters for its internet access. Teachers need to settle on a common resource that is accessible to both schools. This is one of the most important resources, as video conferencing gives students a real chance to see, speak and listen to each other in real time. Moreover, this method of communication also serves as an important way for the teachers to plan their objectives together.
Once teachers have coordinated a common set of objectives and organized their activities accordingly, the main period – the intercultural communication itself – begins. The forms of communicating can vary greatly. However, as is the case with any lesson planning, they should be organized according to the objectives and desired outcomes of the teachers. Possible forms for these activities include: video conferencing as the key one, emails, forum posting and electronic chats, exchanging podcasts and video emails, and even exchanging handwritten letters and packages for special occasions.
Video conferencing is surely the most interesting and at the same time the most productive form of students’ communicating. It provides the most natural opportunity for students, through direct communication, to realize how much they have in common, to speak directly to each other, to notice the emotions and non-verbal expressions of their interlocutors, and to understand each other’s points of view compared to their own. Video conferences can take many forms: introductory (students speak about themselves describing their hobbies, likes and dislikes and anything they want to mention at the first meeting), closing (students summarize their work, say farewell to each other), and topical (students discuss specified topics, answer questions given by the other side, describe an issue from the point of view of their different culture or nation). Teaching foreign students one’s native language is an excellent use of video conferencing – it is very interesting and amusing for the students and gives them a chance to feel free during the conversation, especially after a more rigorous academic project has concluded. Very often, it is during these informal encounters that the fruit of all these projects—the skills of Intercultural Competence—can be observed among the students.
Despite the novelty of these intercultural technology projects, they still involve traditional best practices in pedagogy. Teachers must constantly collaborate and exchange feedback. They must evaluate the tools they use and the effectiveness of their activities. And they must use these reflections to make adjustments to their lessons and planning in order to realize concrete educational objectives.
Our experience suggests that sustained and systematic intercultural projects—when conducted within the framework of proven pedagogical practices—are productive in raising the level of Intercultural Competence in students. The ability of technology to connect students across the world has tremendous potential to help them adjust to the very world those technologies are bringing about.